5 Rules for the Paleo Diet from Actual Paleolithic Humans

rez-art/iStock via Getty Images
rez-art/iStock via Getty Images

The paleo diet, also known as the hunter-gatherer diet or the Stone Age diet, recommends eating lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, and nuts—foods available to our Paleolithic era ancestors—for optimum health in the modern era. The regimen excludes grains and dairy products, since paleo enthusiasts believe those foods emerged in the human diet less than 12,000 years ago, after the advent of agriculture.

But the Paleolithic era began at least 2.5 million years ago, and human diets have altered over that time. Just in the past decade, our impression of what ancient humans ate has changed drastically. If you’re seeking diet advice from some actual paleo humans, try these five rules based on recent archaeological findings that have revolutionized our understanding of the real paleo diet.

1. Scavenge your meat.

Our first tip takes us to Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity. In 2009, paleoanthropologists there found 3.4-million-year-old animal bones with cut marks from stone tools that indicated butchering. The marks were particularly significant because they suggested that the Paleolithic era, or Old Stone Age—when early human ancestors created and used stone tools—began 800,000 years earlier than previously thought. The animal bones were so old that the beings using the tools weren’t even human; they were early hominins, probably Australopithecus afarensis. Previously, stone tool use was attributed only to our genus, Homo, which emerged about 2.5 million years ago.

The two animal bones came from “an impala-sized creature, the other from one closer in size to a buffalo," researchers reported in Nature. They concluded that our early ancestors didn’t hunt the game; they scavenged it by butchering the meat from an existing carcass, likely the prey of another large predator. Scavenging is an important step in human evolution that differentiated hominins from apes. "Chimpanzees do not recognize large animals or carcasses killed by other animals as food," Paleolithic archaeologist David Braun told Nature at the time. "At some point, hominins did.”

2. Cook your dinner over an open fire.

A 300,000-year-old hearth in Israel, reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 2014, is the earliest physical evidence of humans consistently building fire over a period of time. The hearth demonstrates that humans controlled fire for their daily needs, which also suggests that the people had a social structure and increased intellectual capacity. Stone tools for butchering and charred animal bones found nearby indicate that the people were cooking meat.

But our cooking skills may go back even further: A deposit of 1-million-year-old ash was found in South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave. Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has proposed a theory—the Cooking Theory—that suggests learning to cook our food promoted the development of brains that are massive compared to those of other primates. By unlocking nutrients and reducing the time we had to spend chewing, cooking allowed hominins to spend time learning other skills. For this theory to correlate with our known evolutionary path, humans would have had to be cooking with fire about 2 million years ago.

3. Eat your starches and veggies.

The paleo diet, and other low-carb diets, are famously meat-heavy. That M.O. reflected the prevailing theory that early humans, particularly Neanderthals, ate meat almost exclusively. But our understanding of paleo human dining changed in 2014 after the discovery of some fossilized human poop in southern Spain, reported in the journal PLOS ONE. The 50,000-year-old coprolite is the oldest-known human feces. Chemical analysis revealed that the donor did eat meat, but also ate his or her share of vegetables.

Evidence of plant consumption has also been found on Neanderthal tools, and even in their calcified dental plaque. In 2017, Australian researchers analyzed dental calculus dating to 50,000 years ago and turned up a variety of carbohydrates and starch granules from plants, but very few lipids or proteins from meat. Neanderthals seemed to be broadly omnivorous, and in some areas, primarily plant eaters.

4. Go ahead, gorge on grains.

The modern paleo diet forbids all grains, arguing that grain production was a result of the development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago and came after the optimal paleolithic period. The no-grain rule, however, doesn’t reflect the diet of actual paleo humans.

At another ancient site in Israel, Ohalo II on the Sea of Galilee, occupied about 20,000 years ago, researchers found uncultivated wheat and barley alongside an oven-like hearth. The wild grains were harvested with flint blades, processed, and baked. Additionally, analysis of 40,000-year-old dental plaque obtained from human teeth found in Iraq and Belgium indicated the presence of cooked grains.

Both of these discoveries predate the development of agriculture by tens of thousands of years, showing humans living in different places were consuming grains, and perhaps some version of bread, during the Paleolithic era.

5. Eat sweets sparingly.

Paleo humans liked the sweet stuff when they could get it, including wild treats like dates and honey. How do we know? Then as now, one of the effects of sugar in one’s diet is the appearance of tooth cavities. In 2015, Italian researchers found the oldest known evidence of dental work in a 14,000-year-old molar, which showed markings from sharp tools used to dig out rotten tissue. Two years later, the same team of scientists discovered the oldest known filling, dating back roughly 13,000 years. An incisor showed a cavity that had been drilled and plugged with bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum. Cavities were not thought to be a major part of human experience until after the advent of agriculture, but these paleo chompers suggest otherwise.

Wrap Yourself in the Sweet Smell of Bacon (or Coffee or Pine) With These Scented T-Shirts

adogslifephoto/iStock via Getty Images
adogslifephoto/iStock via Getty Images

At one point or another, you’ve probably used perfume, cologne, body spray, or another product meant to make you smell like a flower, food, or something else. But what if you could cut out the middleman and just purchase scented clothing?

Candy Couture California’s (CCC) answer to that is “You can!” The lifestyle brand offers a collection of graphic T-shirts featuring scents like bacon, coffee, pine tree, strawberry, and motor oil. If you have more traditional olfactory predilections, there are several options for you, too, including rose, lavender, and lemongrass. There’s even a signature Candy Couture California scent, which is an intoxicating blend of coconut, strawberry, and vanilla.

candy couture california bacon shirt
Candy Couture California

According to the website, CCC founder Sara Kissing came up with the idea in 2011 while working in the e-commerce fashion industry, and her personal experience with aromatherapy led her to investigate developing clothing that harnessed some of those same benefits. The T-shirts are created with scent-infused gel, which “gives off a delicate, mild smell—just enough to boost your mood.”

So you don’t have to worry about your bacon shirt making the whole office smell like a breakfast sandwich, but you yourself will definitely be able to enjoy its subtle, meaty aroma whenever you wear it. The shirts are also designed to match their scents—the chocolate shirt, for example, features chocolatey baked goods, while the coffee shirt displays steaming mugs of coffee.

candy couture california chocolate shirt
Candy Couture California

The fragrances don’t last forever, but they’ll stay strong through 15 to 20 washes before they start to fade. CCC recommends using unscented detergent so as not to conflict with the shirt’s aroma, and you can further prolong its life if you’re willing to wash it by hand.

Prices start at $79, and you can shop the full collection here.

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

iStock
iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

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